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Slumping Hawks facing tough week against Celtics, Cavaliers

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ATLANTA (AP) — The playoffs are no longer a certainty for the struggling Atlanta Hawks, whose immediate concern has shifted from postseason seeding to not being pushed out the door.

And after losing nine of their last 11, the challenge just got more difficult.

The Hawks, who have slipped to sixth in the eight-team Eastern Conference playoff standings, will play three games in four days against the conference’s top two teams. They play Boston at home on Thursday night before two games against Cleveland.

It’s a critical stretch for a team that is only one game ahead of seventh-place Chicago and two games ahead of Miami and Indiana, who are tied for eighth.

“Maybe this will be the fight that we have to put up to really get us going,” guard Kent Bazemore said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got some very tough teams left, some very good opponents.”

All-Star forward Paul Millsap missed seven straight games with left knee synovitis before playing a reserve role in a 91-82 loss at the Nets on Sunday.

Coach Mike Budenholzer said Millsap “was OK, not great” against Brooklyn and had a good practice on Tuesday. Millsap said he hopes to play his normal starting role against the Celtics.

Two recent losses to Brooklyn, which has the worst record in the NBA, are not the confidence-boosting games needed for a team now preparing to face the East’s best teams.

“I think for our confidence and for our morale, we have to get these wins,” Millsap said. “We have to get out there and compete, because when we do get to the playoffs we have to be playing pretty good basketball. This is a pretty good test for us. Hopefully we just rise to the occasion.”

Millsap said the playoffs begin now for Atlanta.

“I think we’ve got to see it like that,” Millsap said. “I think we’ve got to prepare ourselves as such.”

After the back-to-back games against Cleveland on Friday and Sunday, the Hawks close the regular season with games against Charlotte and Indiana next week.

Atlanta was without three starters – Millsap, Bazemore (right knee bruise) and Thabo Sefolosha (right groin strain) for a few games. Bazemore has returned but Sefolosha may not play against Boston.

Much is on the line for Budenholzer, who as president of basketball operations made such offseason decisions as giving Bazemore a $70 million deal for four years and center Dwight Howard a three-year contract worth $70.5 million.

“This is the most enthused I’ve seen him in a long, long time,” Bazemore said of the coach. “He wants it just as much as we do. … When you see him get that rage in his eyes, it does something for you.”

Millsap smiled when told of the description of Budenholzer’s “rage” and said “I’ve seen love. It just all depends on how you look at it.”

Budenholzer was amused by his players’ differing insights into his demeanor and said: “It’s way more love. It’s a passion of love.”

The coach said he has “a great group of guys” – even if the ill-timed slump has added unwelcome drama to the close of the regular season.

“I think we were making progress in this past week and then I think Sunday was a little bit of a step back,” he said. “We want to always be making steps forward and making progress.”

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook go head-to-head, literally (video)

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This sure didn’t look like just another game for Kevin Durant – and not only because the Thunder beat the Warriors for the first time since he left.

The 108-91 Oklahoma City victory didn’t look like just another game for Russell Westbrook (34 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals), either.

Harrison Barnes banks in game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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With the shot clock off in the fourth quarter and the game tied, Grizzlies big JaMychal Green put back Tyreke Evans‘ miss with a clutch flush. There’s a very fine line between ensuring the last shot and leaving time for an offensive rebound, and Memphis threated it almost perfectly.

Emphasis on “almost.”

The Grizzlies left the Mavericks 0.5 seconds, which Harrison Barnes used to bank in a 3-pointer – off a pinpoint bounce pass by Dennis Smith Jr. – to give Dallas a 95-94 win.

Heat snap Celtics’ 16-game winning streak

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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The Celtics didn’t have another comeback in them.

After overcoming a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Mavericks on Monday to extend its winning streak to 16 games, Boston lost to the Heat tonight, 104-98. The streak ends as the NBA’s longest since the Hawks won 19 straight during the 2014-15 season.

The Celtics trailed Miami by 16 in the fourth quarter then cut the deficit to only one with three minutes left. But Dion Waiters hit back-to-back 3-pointers, helping the Heat pull away.

Goran Dragic (27 points) and Waiters (26 points) led Miami, which needed a reason to feel good after losing three of four to fall to 7-9.

The Celtics, on the other hand, still have a four-game cushion over the rest of the Eastern Conference. This might help them regain focus.

Serge Ibaka gets dunked on by Enes Kanter, hit in face by ball (video)

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Is Enes Kanter mad Serge Ibaka rifted with his family?

(No, not this family. That family.)